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Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life

Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life - Kathleen Norris I forget what it was that led me to seek out this book—maybe a mention in Quiet?—but it's certainly unusual for me to read a book with a Christian spiritual message at its core. That's not why I was reading it, of course. What intrigued me was the idea of an examination of acedia as a condition or state distinct from (and more insidious than) the depression and "mere" sloth with which it's now conflated. It's an old idea, dating to the desert hermits and mystics of early Christianity, one of the original Eight Bad Thoughts elided out when they became the Seven Deadly Sins.In the commonplace-book anthology which ends this volume, one Melvin Maddocks describes acedia as "the weariness of effort that extends to the heart and becomes a weariness of caring." Beckett (no surprise) provides another view: "You think you are simply resting, the better to act when the time comes, or for no reason, and you soon find yourself powerless ever to do anything again." And Pessoa (of course!): "Tedium is not the disease of being bored because there's nothing to do, but the more serious disease of feeling that there's nothing worth doing." I read the book because I was wondering, well, maybe that's what I've got a case of?"The desire to avoid hardship becomes the dread of taking any action at all." (151) "At the first sign of difficulty or obstruction you try to think of ways to move past it, but at every turn you defeat yourself, shooting each fresh idea down as unlikely to work. How foolish of you to have ever believed in that person, that project, that God." (231) Clearly there's something of pride, of self-importance, in this idea—and in my idea of reading such a book, thinking it might apply to me. I don't have just your common-or-garden depression, I've got a spiritual affliction with an ancient pedigree. I was torn between wanting the satisfaction of seeing the symptoms in myself, and wanting to be shot clear of such a debilitating diagnosis. Even if "As a remedy for the affliction, Thomas Aquinas recommended a hot bath, a glass of wine, and a good night's sleep." (35)So acedia is not just a negative reaction to the world, in the misleading stereotype of depression: it's a lack of reaction, even a wallowing in this unmarked state. The cure is not excitement, some new passion or attraction, but a slow and steady and cautious re-engagement with the normal, the everyday, the routine. And as directly as possible, not mediated: "Acedia is at work in us when we prefer buying things to witnessing the beauty of nature, 'reading' catalogues instead of books, or lingering in a museum store instead of touring the museum itself." (194) And that's where it gets spiritual, because Norris finds that kind of direct engagement with the ordinary in regular prayer and monastic ritual.Norris' story is woven through this book: her move to an isolated South Dakota town, her rediscovery of religious ritual, and most of all her patient caretaking during her husband's many health crises, long decline, and death. All of that brings present her idea and experience of acedia, which might otherwise remain an ancient abstraction, but both the long-enduring marriage and the respite she finds in prayer remain foreign to me. I guess that's essential—part of her point is that acedia is a renunciation of personal engagement with the world—but, for me, this vehicle didn't work.It's still a really interesting (and personally relevant) idea, that there are many varieties of depression and disengagement from the world and what "cures" one may actually feed another. I don't "have" acedia, I don't think—otherwise why would I put in the effort to read this book, to write this review?—but certainly I've long distrusted blanket generalizations about mood and temperament, and this is a new and intriguing perspective. I can even understand that it's hard to write about acedia without bringing in some kind of "spiritual" thought. I suspect, though, that some variation on (originally Buddhist, yes) mindfulness practice could fulfill for others the role that Christian ritual does for Norris, and a book with that frame would be one I could more fully engage with. Even though it was the early Christians who gave it the name, the idea—and the problem—of acedia is not, in the end, religious.